yarn + water = magic

yarn + water = magic

Here’s what I want to talk about today: Water changes yarn, and it changes knitted fabric. Sometimes it changes it for the better, sometimes not so much. Knitting swatches — and blocking those swatches — is always described as a critical step in achieving the right fit. And it is. (It’s the only way you can know how big your stitches and rows are, and thus how big your finished object will be.) But it’s also so much more than that, and the “more” is far less often discussed.

I’m not an expert on breeds, fiber characteristics, how yarn is spun … none of it. Not by a long shot. But I know a few things, and a lot of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from knitting and soaking yarn. (Or watching Clara Parkes do it.) If you give it a chance — if you look and touch and listen — yarn will teach you things. So at the risk of sounding didactic, I want to talk a tiny bit about why you should soak your knitting, if you don’t already — especially your swatches.

1.) See that photo up top? It’s an amazing small-batch yarn from Hinterland called Range — a woolen-spun wool/alpaca blend that is so light and airy and cushy I actually have a hard time believing there’s alpaca in it. I met the lovely Hanahlie Beise of Hinterland in Carnation last weekend and she had with her these two skeins of the same yarn. The one on the right is how it’s sold in the skein, and the one on the left has been soaked. See how much plumper it is? I wish you could squish it. It “bloomed” — or fluffed up! — when washed. Yarns like that are my very favorite yarns, but you can’t know how a yarn will behave until you soak it. If you swatch and don’t block, you don’t really know what sort of fabric you’re creating, don’t know what the yarn is capable of — and what it is capable of might affect how it should be knitted. This yarn would benefit from being knitted a little on the loose side so there’s room for those stitches to grow. Right? (Hanahlie gave me a skein of this amazing stuff before we parted ways, and I look forward to figuring out the exact right thing to do with it.)

2) See the photo in the middle? That’s (the now discontinued) Shibui Merino Alpaca. It’s a sweater I started long ago and will apparently never be finishing, but this photo is a good example of the most commonly known result of blocking knitted fabric, which is that it relaxes into itself. Lace opens up; stitch patterns lay flatter. These two sleeves are identical, but the one on the bottom has been blocked. The individual stitches have all settled into their new shapes, and the fabric has become more cohesive, with a very slight halo. In this case, it’s also become more drapey. (Too drapey for my taste. A lot of people like drapey; I happen to not.) If the pattern called for the wool/alpaca Hinterland above and you were substituting this yarn, or vice versa, you’d wind up with a garment that hung and wore and behaved very differently from the designer’s version because the yarns are so different, despite their seemingly-not-that-different fiber content.

3) And then that photo on the bottom? You’ll have to take my word for what’s going on here, but that’s the blocked swatch and one of the unblocked sleeves for the sweater I’m knitting from my Sawkill Farm yarn. Again, this a yarn that blooms a bit when washed — compare the fringe on the left edge of the swatch with the working yarn just above it — and can tolerate a slightly loose gauge. But beyond that, what you’d find if you could see and touch these two things in person is that the swatch feels very different from the skein or the unblocked sleeve. Again, I’m no expert, but apparently some yarns are washed one last time after they’re spun (before they’re skeined) while others are not. This one feels lovely in the skein but seemingly hasn’t had that post-spin wash, so there’s a little trace of machine oils on the yarn — again, not uncommon. (This was pointed out to me by more astute friends. I wouldn’t have been able to explain the difference.) The washed swatch is a clearer grey and it feels as light as air. If you’ve ever felt lopi — the yarn of Iceland — you’d be able to guess that there’s some Icelandic fleece in the mix here. It has that weightlessness and fuzziness, which wasn’t apparent until it was soaked.

When you soak a piece of knitted fabric, you might find these things — yarn blooming beautifully, getting softer, taking on an appropriate drape (or not). Or you might find that your nice plump cables fall flat, or that your heel stitch exhales to the point that your formerly perfect-fitting hat falls down over your face. (These are real examples from my own life.) Different breeds and blends do different things. Worsted-spun is different from woolen-spun. An undyed yarn can knit up and behave differently than the same yarn plus dye. All of these nuances and complexities are what make yarn and knitting so fascinating. And the best way to begin to understand and appreciate it on that level is to simply run some tepid water* and give that swatch a dunk.

*For those about to ask what I recommend as far as wool wash, my longtime favorite soap to use when blocking knits is the bar soap that I’ve recently been able to start selling. Anything with lanolin — which is stripped from wool in varying degrees during processing — will increase the softness of wool when used.

SEE ALSO: How to knit and measure a swatch and How do you block your knits?

25 thoughts on “yarn + water = magic

  1. One thing about skeins coming from the mill (because I have a lot), if you don’t wash the skeins, the oils attract dirt. YES it makes a huge difference…so either pay the extra to have them mill washed, or spend a day washing 100 skeins of yarn and having to redry every one…

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  2. I learned the lesson from a post the Yarn Harlot did a few years ago and found both she and you are right — I had yarn I was winding from a cone meant for machine knitting, and the difference pre- and post-soaking was amazing.

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  3. You are so right on – and I love that you equate it with magic because that is exactly how I feel. May I share this with my students and knitting circle? Because it’s perfect!

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  4. I learn more and more reading these blogs. I’ve just been discovering this myself. I am a pretty capable knitter, meaning I can figure out anything if I have instructions, but only in the past few years or so have been making sweaters, and the results are hit and miss (only one so far out of about 6 that no one could wear–sizing was the first big problem!) but getting better each time. I found Alice Starmore’s “St. Brigid” and knew I had to make it (because, duh, Brigid) and decided if I was going to all that trouble, I was buying the yarn she used and made. Her blocking instructions are very clear: pin the dry pieces per measurements, cover with a damp cloth and allow to thoroughly dry. And you can bet I will do that!

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  5. Karen, I love your blog and website and shop- always feel like I’ve met such a kindred spirit!
    I’ve knit almost my whole life, still consider myself an advanced beginner and forever student, and have always had one burning question that I’ve never asked anyone- what are you supposed to swatch WITH? Is swatching measured into recommended yardage for a pattern? Or do I buy, after spending $100 for my pattern yarn, buy another skein to swatch and block? Like you, I love blocking my finished piece, love Eucalan, and use the same method you do. I know you have my answer!
    Thanks again for a great blog!
    Jenni Oliver

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    • Yardage on patterns is based on the finished garment’s weight, so it does not include swatching or tails or anything. You need to make sure you have enough yarn to swatch with. And unfortunately, a lot of patterns tell you the yardage of the number of skeins required rather than the yardage used. So it might say you need 10 skeins and you don’t know whether it actually uses 9.1 or 9.9. It’s frustrating. But it’s also an imperfect art — no two knitters will use the exact same yardage, no matter what. So it’s always best to buy an extra skein. Don’t wind it till you need it, and if you don’t use it you can likely return it to the yarn store, as long as it’s still in original form. Or make a matching hat!

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  6. I think Cynthia above answered the question I had: why not wash the skeins (being careful that they’re well tied off and can’t tangle) when I first buy them? Its easier to contemplate because my husband does it all the time with his handspun (constant lovely “decoration” in the studio bathroom!) so we have the set for doing that already in place and I would only need to be doing a few at a time.

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    • That will probably get you part way there. However, the finished fabric will really reveal itself after it is knit up and washed just like you would the finished garment. The stitches do interact with each other as they are knit and then washed; if they have a halo they will also bind to each other a little bit. Also you are bending your yarn with each and every stitch and the yarn will relax into that new shape once it gets wet and will show you how it will drape or hold its shape. Does that make sense?

      I am currently doing the Breed Swatch-along with KnitBritish :
      http://www.knitbritish.net/on-swatching/

      It has been a really enjoyable process and most educational. As you mention, Karen, it is the best education I’ve had about my own spinning and about the properties of commercially spun yarn.

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  7. I always wash my swatches. But for several sweaters I find the sweater sections come out of the wash (usually a looser gauge and bigger) differently than the swatches do. I made a sweater that grew 4 inches in the wash – and the washed swatch didn’t grow at all. Does anyone know how to avoid this? Am I washing the sweater section differently? Do I need to make bigger swatches? Knit the sweater at a slightly tighter gauge than the swatch? I need a better way to predict the magic!

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  8. Pingback: Blocking Knitting Without Special Equipment | Stale Bread into French Toast

  9. Swatching and blocking have been instrumental in moving me from a struggling to a proficient and far more competent knitter! Took many years to learn these lessons, but better late than never, I guess!

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  10. The images are so instructive. I’ve swatched in the past but only started properly swatching in the round as well as washing my swatch. I was inspired by reading Zimmerman’s Knitting Workshop book (which, in addition to a great knitting book, is a fabulous portrait of a specific time – love it!). Thanks for this!

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  11. Should one use your new wool wash ONLY with wool, or is it okay for silk, cashmere, cotton, and wool blends, etc? Curious how the lanolin would interact with those other fibers. Thanks!

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  12. I too am learning so much from your posts, and I’ve been knitting for more than 50 years! But I’m really interested in what you have to say about water and wool. I was always told that soaking wool was a real no-no. I’ve just looked at the band of the yarn I’m about to knit with – Drops Lima – and it says ‘do not soak garment’. So I’m a bit perplexed. I’ll wash a swatch in any case, because I’m curious to find out how it will come out, but I wonder what your thoughts are on this.

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